Everyone is searching for the next “Game of Thrones,” but not everyone can afford it. Between the large ensembles, intricate costumes, and immense sets, HBO’s blockbuster fantasy series is not the easiest TV show to make on a budget. Luckily for George R.R. Martin’s elaborate vision, HBO doesn’t have to worry about money: The giant premium cable powerhouse will keep throwing cash at “Game of Thrones” until the show stops returning it ten-fold. This is why everyone wants to be a part of the next “Game of Thrones,” and this is why Netflix is getting ready to release “Marco Polo.”
An adventure tale about one of the world’s earliest adventurers, “Marco Polo” tracks the titular explorer from his early days as a merchant to his time as a member of Kublai Khan’s court in 13th Century China. Shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malysia, the 10-episode first season carried an estimated production budget of $90 million, putting it on par with a mid-level studio blockbuster if it were a feature film — and, for a minute there, it almost was. The journey of “Marco Polo” from inception to your home on December 12 is almost as elaborate, challenging and improbable as that of the real-life titular hero.
Netflix’s latest original series is more than just an attempt to replicate HBO’s model for success. It’s also working carefully to bridge the gap between the worlds of film and television. The studio system has all but given up on making mid-budget (around $30-60 million, though the definition various) stand-alone films in favor of expensive tentpole franchises. With its budget, scope, and globe-spanning production, “Marco Polo” has the look of a tentpole franchise for TV, a medium that’s been absorbing and repurposing those mid-budget films during its so-called “Golden Age.” So what was it about a man whose name is most often associated with a children’s game that convinced The Weinstein Company—the series’ producer—and Netflix to take such an expensive risk on a new series with no established stars, no built-in audience and helmed by a creator who had never written for TV before?
A Story Never Told
Other than the obvious allure of a “Game of Thrones”-esque smash hit, the show was built around the passions of two men: Creator John Fusco and TWC co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein.
“I had this longtime interest in Marco Polo,” said Fusco, in an interview with Indiewire. “And I felt that his story has never really been done justice. His story’s just so epic that the only way to capture it, the perfect way to capture it is in a long-form TV series. And it turns out that Harvey Weinstein was thinking in the exact same direction.”
Both men shared a common interest in “East-meets-West” cinema according to Fusco, with the Hollywood power producer undoubtedly being attracted to the series creator’s extensive experience in martial arts, big budget films and screenwriting. Breaking into the Asian markets is a top priority in in the entertainment industry right now, and “Marco Polo” offers the opportunity to attract not only the right audience, but hold onto them for years and years to come.
Still, after a stumble out of the gate, Weinstein considered making “Marco Polo” into a film rather than a series. Starz had committed to the project with a 10-episode straight-to-series order in 2012, but complications arose when the plan to shoot in China — a location never before home to a U.S.television show — was too complicated to accomplish. The premium cable network bowed out, and Weinstein thought it might be best to move forward with the project as a feature.
“Then Harvey and I got back together again and reminded each other why we wanted to do this in the first place, that it really belonged on TV,” Fusco said. “That’s why Harvey, who’s really been the driving force behind this thing, got it set up with Netflix.”
Fusco had already written seven scripts for the project, and when Weinstein delivered them to Netflix, “they were just really supportive all the way.” Few changes were made in switching from Starz to Netflix, allowing Fusco’s original vision to exist as he’d always wanted it. The pilot itself is a dense, exposition-heavy hour, with enough of an imbalance between dialogue and action to make one wonder whether or not global audiences watching with subtitles may get tired of trying to keep up.
“I think that audiences are very sharp today around the globe and like catching up with narratives and exposition and story,” Fusco said. “We’re setting up an alien empire here, and seeing it through the eyes of Marco Polo. He’s our avatar. He’s our guy, and he takes us into this world that really defines our perception of ancient Mongolia and the Mongols. Here’s a guy, Kubla Khan, who was Genghis Khan’s grandson. So we have this built-in perception, and we need to learn about what this empire was really like — this multicultural, progressive international think-tank and his goal to conquer south China and become the first non-Chinese Emperor of China, plus all the Mongol family tree internal conflict. That needs to be set up to really set the table for [the rest of the series].”
Next: How “Marco Polo” nearly didn’t cast its Marco Polo — because he didn’t speak English.
Don’t Buy a Star — Make One
While that may seem like a lot to handle, Lorenzo Richelmy, the show’s star, claims making the series felt closer to crafting an indie film than a giant studio blockbuster.
“The atmosphere there was like that of an Indie movie because we were trying to create something unique,” Richelmy said when speaking with Indiewire earlier this month. “They were all humble and all trying to get the best from themselves to create something beautiful, and that’s normally an atmosphere of a feature or of an indie movie.”
Before “Marco Polo,” the Italian-native Richelmy’s past credits were all little-seen foreign features and a few non-English-speaking TV shows. Casting auditions for the lead in “Marco Polo” was conducted in London, Australia and Los Angeles, but no one saw Richelmy’s tape until the wife of creator John Fusco stumbled across it during a late night binge of her own.
Richelmy, however, tells the story a little differently.
“Well, actually, I did cast myself,” he said. “I heard about the project, [but] nobody called me. They were looking for the guys who I’ve known for years, and I heard about it last year because this friend of mine had his audition in Italy.”
Richelmy then discovered the casting director for the series wasn’t his biggest fan, so he asked his agent to get him the scene used for the audition and asked a “big director friend” of his to help him make an audition tape. After two months without a word, Richelmy got the call and flew to Malaysia, where he nailed the audition except for one minor problem. Though he learned how to pronounce the English phrases written for his auditions, those were the only words he knew in the language. Producers said he’d have to show he could learn the language quickly if he wanted to be considered for the role.
“They gave me, for one week, a dialect coach, and they told me, ‘If you’re going to improve quickly, you will be on our main list.’ So I did—this week of training, I started learning English eight hours a day. At the end of the week, I went to London to do the final audition. And that’s it — it went fine.”
Whether his English is still a little shaky or Richelmy is that humble, the audition clearly went more than fine. As the lead of the most expensive Netflix series to date, Richelmy has a legitimate shot at becoming an overnight star. Between his looks, that accent and the Netflix platform, we may be seeing more of Richelmy than just as the face of “Marco Polo.”
Next: How the cinematic heart of “Marco Polo” might change both film and TV forever.
Bridging the Divide Between Film and Television
Whether we see Richelmy again is still up-in-the-air, as Netflix has only committed to one season of its latest original series. Fusco, on the other hand, is about to have his name cemented with the streaming giant: On August 28, 2015, Netflix will premiere “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend” on the same day the film is released in IMAX theaters across the country. It’s an unprecedented distribution plan, and one Netflix plans to pursue repeatedly in the coming years.
The sequel to Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning feature is penned by Fusco and produced by TWC, making the already shrinking bridge between film and TV seem even smaller. In less than a year, this creative triumvirate will have written, produced, and released a brand new 10-episode TV series as well as a hotly-anticipated feature on the same platform.
“I think what’s great about Netflix is they’re really giving the viewer the opportunity to watch both television and movies the way they want to,” Fusco said. “I do think it’s in many ways the new frontier. I think the moviegoer experience is evolving. So, is Netflix specifically the future? I don’t know, but it’s an exciting place to be with both the show and ‘Crouching Tiger.'”
But with theater chains vehemently opposing the day-and-date releasing strategy with VOD, Netflix, or any other streaming service, and cinephiles clinging to the established viewing medium, the question becomes how consumers’ choices will impact our culture at large. As more movies debut on Netflix, will ticket prices at theaters rise to make up for lower attendance figures? Will what was an affordable weekly option two decades ago not only become a luxurious night out but also a rarity, even for film fans? While it may make consumers’ lives easier, whether or not these developments benefit both film and television is up for debate.
These choices matter to the bigger picture in the long run, and how consumers choose to watch in 2015 could give us an indication of what the future holds. With a TV show at the network but a cinematic heart beating in his chest, how will Fusco himself be watching the “Crouching Tiger” sequel come August?
“It depends, just like anybody, what’s going on in your life at that time,” Fusco said. “We’re all busy people. If it makes sense to me to watch it on Netflix — that’s what I would do. […] I think [Netflix Chief Content Officer] Ted Sarandos said it best: When you’re watching a sports event, like a football game, some people want to stay at home, sit on the couch, eat some nachos. Other people want the stadium experience and to be right in there for that big, immediate thrill.”
However, when asked whether or not he wished he could see “Marco Polo” on the big screen, Fusco was quick to claim many could recreate the “cinematic experience” at home. Yet when pressed about audiences watching “Marco Polo” on their tablet, iPhone or other less-than-theater-level equipment, Fusco said, “I feel they’re definitely missing out watching on a smaller device, but again that’s their choice.”